With all the offseason changes and injuries the Denver Nuggets have faced, it's remarkable that first-year head coach Brian Shaw has led his team to a 13-8 record.
Danilo Gallinari still isn't back from his ACL injury and just started running for this first time in practice, according to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post. JaVale McGee has only played five games, Wilson Chandler missed the first six contests and Ty Lawson sat out the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Yet, with Lawson's leadership, improvement from the bench and finding multiple ways to win, the Nuggets aren't wasting time turning the momentum of their season around. Last year when the Nuggets claimed their franchise-record 57 wins, they had 12 losses when they claimed their 13th victory.
To be fair, Denver fans shouldn't get overly excited since the Dallas Mavericks are the only team they've beaten with a winning record. But given the circumstances, if you were offered the 13-8 record before the season started, you'd take it.
Ty Lawson Is an All-Star
Despite playing in a new offensive scheme with a different starting lineup and a changing rotation, Lawson continues to develop and is playing the best basketball of his NBA career.
Lawson's 19.3 points and eight assists are career highs, but he also leads the team with a 22.2 player efficiency rating. He's done this in 34.6 minutes, right between the 34.4 and 34.8 minutes he's played the last two seasons.
Lawson admitted to Christopher Dempsey toward the end of training camp that he was still getting used to the new offense. Through the first eight regular-season games, Lawson shot 42.4 percent from the floor.
Since then, he's made 46 percent of his shots, but if you eliminate his 1-of-13 outing against the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's 50 percent.
In what could have easily been a long period of time for Lawson adjusting to Shaw's system, the Denver point guard has quickly adapted to a more balanced offensive pace and to playing more of an inside-outside style.
At the same time, Lawson continues to excel in transition, attack or make a great pass in the pick-and-roll and create his own shot when the rest of the team is struggling.
It's ridiculous that Lawson isn't in the top 10 on the first All-Star Ballot returns for backcourt players in the Western Conference. Among point guards in the West, he's fourth in PER, points per game and tied for fourth in assists per game.
The statistics, arsenal of skills, team record and circumstances support Lawson going to New Orleans in February.
Fantastic Bench Play
One of Denver's biggest weaknesses to start the season was its bench play.
Granted, that's when Shaw was shuffling his lineup and rotation the most, but the Nuggets were frequently stagnant on offense to start the fourth quarter. This ultimately led to poor defense and it cost Denver a couple wins, most notably against the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
However, once the Nuggets returned to Denver for their nationally televised showdown with the Chicago Bulls, the bench started to find a groove with its balance.
It starts with Nate Robinson's energy, and according to Basketball-Reference.com, his 20 points per 36 minutes is the highest he's recorded since his 2008-09 season with the New York Knicks. By playing at the 1 or the 2, Robinson's ability to catch and shoot, attack off the dribble and make shots from anywhere on the floor makes him difficult to contain.
Andre Miller has been the equalizer with his experience and getting everyone involved in the offense. But while he gets Timofey Mozgov going in the post or kicks the ball out to his shooters on the perimeter, he still attacks the basket and will post up the opposing guards.
Jordan Hamilton's three-point shooting at 40 percent and his 83.3 free-throw percentage have been vital in Gallinari's absence. But it's his defense that gives him a chance to be a primary role player. Darrell Arthur continues to stretch the floor with his mid-range jumper while playing solid defense.
Mozgov has made superb strides with the inside-out play. With an evolving offensive post game and a full effort on the defensive end at 7'1", his 8.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18.8 minutes dominate most of the second units in the league.
But more importantly, after finishing 28th in three-point percentage last season at 31.9 percent, they are second this season at 41.4 percent. This has helped stretch the defense and has allowed easier opportunities for Mozgov inside and the guards to penetrate.
Coaching and Finding Different Ways to Win
Just how good is the Nuggets' depth in terms of scoring?
Well, six Denver players average at least 10 points, and 10 guys play over 17 minutes. Plus, even though Lawson has led the Nuggets in scoring in 11 of the 21 contests, Denver has had seven different players as the top scorer with Kenneth Faried (10 PPG) yet to do so.
Furthermore, the top scorer has only come from Denver—and not the opposition—on four occasions.
The Nuggets have incredible depth, but Shaw is making it multidimensional.
They're still grabbing a third-best 55.5 total rebounds, but they aren't relying as heavily on the transition game. The Nuggets score a 12th-ranked 13.7 fast-break points, their lowest total in over 10 seasons, but are the sixth-most efficient fast-break team.
The numbers prove that Shaw is addressing and improving Denver's weaknesses while maintaining its strengths. There is constant firepower on this team.
What is the biggest reason for Denver's early success?
But in terms of getting the win at the end, it's something different every night.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nuggets pounded the rock inside with Mozgov for 23 points and took advantage of the Lakers' weak frontcourt defense.
Versus the Bulls, when Wilson Chandler didn't score and Lawson was having an off night, Denver went after Chicago's lack of depth, and Robinson and Hamilton started draining three-pointers to begin the fourth quarter with 13 straight points.
Even on a night where the Nuggets weren't playing well against the New York Knicks, and Denver was trying to give the game away, Randy Foye made an incredible block on Carmelo Anthony in the final seconds for the victory.
Or, in the last meeting with the Washington Wizards without Lawson, it was a sluggish game for both teams, but Denver clamped down defensively and only allowed two free throws in the final four minutes for the one-point win.
It makes sense for a team facing several obstacles to go through ups and downs. But given that the Nuggets have a leader like Lawson, solid support around him and a coach that is making them more diverse, there's great reason to think this Denver squad is heading in the right direction.